SB 500 Supporters implied bill didn’t apply to violent offenders

By Grant Bosse on October 14, 2010
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(CONCORD) The legislative record leading up to passage of Senate Bill 500 finds little mention of the bill’s most controversial provision; mandatory parole of all prisoners at least nine months before the end of their maximum sentences. In fact, statements, writings, and testimony from the bill’s top supporters strongly implied that the prison reform measure was aimed at nonviolent offenders.

Senate President Sylvia Larsen (D-Concord) was the lead sponsor of SB 500, the Justice Reinvestment Act. Writing in a column published by the Union Leader in January, Larsen implied that the legislation she was drafting was meant to save money by reducing recidivism among inmates convicted on nonviolent crimes.

“I and my fellow lawmakers see a big potential payoff to the state if we can find more effective ways to target our money. Some money must continue to go to our prisons because society still needs to be protected from violent predators and other dangerous criminals. But can we do a better and more cost-effective job of treating other offenders and thus keep all of us safer and better able to lead productive lives?”

In a February press release announcing the bill’s introduction, Larsen highlighted the bill’s treatment programs and increased supervision requirements, but did not bring up the mandatory early release provision.

“This draft legislation sets us on the path to improving our corrections system and putting a stop to the revolving prison door. We can improve public safety by doing a better job of treating substance abuse and mental health issues in our communities. At the same time we want to be sure that parolees and probationers get adequate supervision and face swift and certain consequences if they don’t adhere to the terms of their release.”

House Speaker Terie Norelli (D-Portsmouth) was an original cosponsor of SB 500. She summarized the bill’s main components in a column published by the Portsmouth Herald in March. While highlighting the section dealing with nonviolent offenders, Norelli did not mention the bill’s other main provision mandating the early release of all prisoners.

“The legislation first reduces case loads for probation and parole officers by reducing the amount of time they spend supervising low-risk offenders. Taking this step will allow probation and parole officers to spend more time supervising offenders who pose the greatest risk to public safety.

Second, the legislation provides probation and parole officers with tools to sanction people on probation and parole with short, swift terms of incarceration in jail and prison without going back to court or the parole board.

Third, the legislation ensures that nonviolent offenders serve 100 to 120 percent of their minimum sentence and that no one is released without a period of supervision in the community.”

TIMELINE OF SB 500

During his testimony in support of the bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Governor John Lynch did refer to the eventual release of potentially violent inmates. While he did not specifically cite the bill’s mandatory release language, Lynch did allude to most prisoners eventually leaving prison.

“Now, let’s be clear. Violent felons belong in prison and some criminals should and will stay in prison for the rest of their lives. But, most people who enter New Hampshire’s prison system will complete their sentence and be released at some point.”

Lynch also asked that the bill be amended to restore some discretion in the parole process.

“I would encourage you to provide some flexibility to the Commissioner of Corrections to keep in the prison system inmates who refuse to participate in the programming or who may represent a risk to their community.”

Lynch’s February testimony is as close as he came to acknowledging that the bill would apply to all New Hampshire prisoners, regardless of the nature of their conviction. Following a bill signing ceremony on June 30th, Lynch’s press release addressed the bill’s nonviolent offenders provision.

The Justice Reinvestment Act increases supervision of released inmates who are a high-risk to offend again; applies swift and certain jail sanctions for probation and parole violations; reinforces New Hampshire’s truth in sentencing tradition by requiring all offenders to serve no less than 100 to 120 percent of their minimum sentences; and reinvests savings in behavioral health and treatment programs for high-need and high-risk parolees and probationers.

Lawmakers did receive some warning about the bill’s impact. Adult Parole Board Chairman George Khoury submitted testimony warning lawmakers not to undercut the Board’s discretion in granting parole, and urging them to consider the bill’s unintended consequences.

“Our Board feels that this bill is being expedited through the legislative process on a virtual ‘fast track’ without an appropriate measure of evaluation of the potential effects of some of the changes which it proposes.

“From a Parole Board standpoint; which reflects the opinion and attitudes of those individuals who must sign the parole certificates (which release offenders back into society), we state clearly: ‘Study and those these matters through’!

“If you, truly, choose to remove the Parole Board’s autonomy and discretionary powers, in these matters; the Board will function ‘in name only’. Ask any of our current or potential, future members if they want their decisions compromised by their inability to judge the totality of the individual circumstances. The answer is a resounding ‘No’…

“Prior to a ‘Rush to Judgment’ on the passage of this bill, please take a careful look at the percentage of parole revocations which are the result of the commission of new, criminal offenses by parolees, some, of whom, have been paroled 3, 4 and even 5 or more times; during their sentences.”

Yesterday, both the House and Senate denied attempts to suspend legislative rules in order to take up changes to SB 500 before the Legislature adjourned for the year. Larsen and Norelli argued that there was no need to revisit the issue, since lawmakers knew the bill applied to all prisoners when they overwhelmingly approved it earlier this year.

During the Senate floor debate on the measure in March, Senator Bob Letourneau (R-Derry) told his colleagues that the bill was meant for nonviolent offenders. During yesterday’s debate on whether or not to reopen the legislation, Letourneau said he “never his wildest dreams would have voted for this” if he’d known it would require the early release of sex offenders.

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